Gerbils as pets: history, habitat, lifespan & legality

Gerbils 101

Gerbils are furry little creatures with great personalities. They are affectionate, social, cute, athletic and bold.

They bounce around and like to play every single minute they are awake. They are happy pets. And they are popular, like really really popular.

So much so that when it comes to their influence on our culture, the only other Mongolian who rivals them is their fellow country man - Genghis Khan.

But make no mistake, Gerbils are gentler, though as hardy as probably the Great Khan was

Gerbils are super inquisitive with loads of energy to boot. They are mischievous, hoppity, easy to take care of and in general really entertaining pets. They are very friendly with humans and almost never bite once properly trained.

They have practically no odour as is the case with hamsters or mice and are much easier to maintain. They are little fur balls who make people happy and don’t ask for much maintenance in return.

The story of how Gerbils won over humans and became one of the most dominant pets is almost out of this world.

Wanna know? Awesome, get set and here we go.

More...

What you will also get to know

History

  • What does the scientific name for gerbils mean and why is it ironic
  • How 40 Gerbils forefathered almost every single pet gerbil around the world
  • The story of how Gerbils went from being research animals to beloved pets

Gerbils Nature

  • Are Gerbils smart enough to memorize and clear a maze?
  • Why you should never swoop down suddenly on your Gerbils

Physical Characterstics and legal status

  • One thing Gerbils beat humans on
  • Legality across USA, New Zealand and Australia

The most common pet gerbils are mongolian gerbils also known as Meriones unguiculatus (scientific name). They are also known as mongolian desert gerbil, clawed jird or sometimes simply clawed gerbil.

99.9% of cases, this is the species people are referring to whenever anyone talks about a pet gerbil.

History

Although gerbils are very common pets now, it wasn’t always so.

The very first time we see gerbils mentioned in western history was in 1886. Father Armand David who was travelling to northern China and Mongolia sent some of them to Museum of natural history in Paris. He originally called these creatures yellow rats.

Fun fact : Father Armand David, also known as Pere David, discovered Giant Panda on the same trip.

Fun Fact 2 : By the way, this man was a machine. He ended up discovering 63 new species of wild animals and 65 new species of birds, thats not counting how many species of insects he discovered.

Subsequently in 1867, scientist Alphonse Milne-Edwards published his notes and observations on these mammals.

And then in 1908, the scientific community named gerbils as Meriones Unguiculatus, a greek and latin combination loosely meaning "clawed warrior".

As indicated earlier, a rather ironic scientific name as gerbils are typically very gentle and docile.

The only time they get aggressive is when they are protecting their territory and loved ones​ from stranger gerbils. Though even then they mostly use their teeth. They claws are reserved mostly for digging as harmless an activity as it can get.

But regardless of this name debate, gerbils continued to be interesting to scientists and in 1935, a Japanese scientist Dr Kasuga captured 20 breeding pairs along the Amur river basin in eastern Mongolia.

He brought them back to his institute and started breeding them. In 1954, Dr Victor Schwentker imported 11 pairs from this institute to start his own gerbil colony. Originally these gerbils were bred purely for research purposes but it didn't stay that way for very long.

Unlike laboratory rats, gerbils are way too inquisitive and will explore every corner of a new maze. Hence in research labs, they were soon deemed to be not so useful for ​maze or other such experiments that depend upon incentive-behavior mapping.

This brings us to an interesting question...

Are gerbils smart enough to actually memorize a maze?

Watch the video below to get your answer. Seriously watch it, its awesome (Do wait for last 20 seconds for magic to really happen).

It was at Dr Victor’s lab, where it all began.

Being the inquisitive, intelligent and cute animals, gerbils quickly won the hearts of employees in Dr Victor’s lab. Even though they were not as suitable for laboratory experiments as other standard mammals, gerbils were not afraid to interact with their keepers.

Some employees who were regularly interacting with these little folks, got attached and took some of them home.

Then probably nagged by their kids who wanted to play more with their little friends, many of them simply started keeping gerbils as pets.

In due course, these mammals found their way to actual pet shops and as history would have it, soon became one of the most popular and beloved pets in the USA.

UK got their first taste of Gerbils in 1964 when 24 breeding pairs of gerbils were sent over. Again originally they were imported for research purposes but it was a matter of time before they won the british hearts too.

Fun fact 3 - Almost all pet gerbils around the world descend from those original 20 pairs captured by Dr Kasuga. Magnificient 40, you say.

Natural Habitat

Gerbils are originally desert animals and are found in wild in northern parts of Asia, most famously Mongolia.

But unlike most other desert animals, they are not fully nocturnal and have alternating phases of sleep and activity. Gerbils take naps through out the day but are awake for the equal measure.

This makes them a good pet for kids who don’t always have to stay awake till late night and have both evenings and early mornings to play with their friends.

In wild, these mammals live in big groups often having 10-20 members each. Each group has only one dominant breeding pair while rest help with raising the young ones. Young gerbils don't start breeding till they have left the group to start their own.

Gerbils are diggers and tunnel makers and often construct big burrows, sometimes with 10-20 exits. They use these burrows to rest, hide and breed. And only come out to surface whenever they need food or water.

Their territory in wild will typically span 0.8 km -1.5 km, largely necessitated due to the desert environment they live in and all of that is typically covered by burrows.

An important point to note is that these fellows have a strong sense of clan and rely on scent to identify other members of their clan. Gerbils from one clan will often fight one from another unless properly introduced, both in wild and as pets.

The overall climate in their natural habitat is extreme. Temperatures can range from -40 degrees celsius in winter to +50 degrees celsius in summer. And more often than not these areas are also characterized by very low precipitation.

Gerbils have adapted very well to this harsh habitat.

They derive most of their water requirements from the food they eat, so they don't need much water in wild. Gerbils forage continuously during day and during night, only taking a break when its too hot. Winters are really cold though and they come out only on sunny days while staying in their burrows rest of the time.

Winters cause a major issue for these mammals, however:

Gerbils do not hibernate

And hence they need a constant source of food even in winters.

Because of this they have evolved to become great hoarders. They will continously collect grains and seeds and other food in summers, with all members of family religiously working on that and then store them in an underground compartment in their burrow.

In harsh winters, when there is nothing out there, a gerbil family will stay tight and warm in a deep burrow and enjoy the fruits (or should we say seeds) of their collective labour.

Evolution over centuries in such harsh environment has actually imbued them with some key advantages over other pets.

Their adaptability to almost any habitat is unparalleled. They are amongst toughest of pets when it comes to adjusting to various habitats across the world.

Also due to how arid their natural habitat is, they have evolved their bodies to produce very little excreta. They don’t urinate frequently and even the smell of their urine does not have any ammonia odor (unlike a cat or a hamster). Their solid waste is small too and is usually restricted to one corner in their cage or burrow.

Additionally, they don’t smell much. Their fur has a very faint scent (much like a bunny fur) and they are easily the least smelly of pet rodents.

Gerbils:​

  • can adjust to almost any habitat
  • produce very little excreta and don't urinate often
  • don't smell much

All in all, fairly clean pets and quite kissable too.

Size, physical characteristics and colors

Gerbils are small animals often weighing between 50-90 grams (2 to 3 ounces). They typically have a size of about 4-5 inches (10-12 cms).

Gerbils are somewhere between a rat and a mouse when it comes to size and is about the same size as that of a small hamster. Males are about 25% larger than females.

Gerbil sitting in human hand

Both will fit comfortably in the palm of your hand though.

They have fur-covered tails which are almost as long as them. They have strong hind legs and this allows them to both stand straight (like a kangaroo) as well as to jump really high.

Adult gerbils can jump as high as 30 cm (that’s like a man jumping 20 feet high). Handily beating homo-sapiens, best of whom can probably jump 8 feet.

Gerbils have large eyes located on both sides of their head. This gives them a wide field of vision that comes in handy while foraging. Gerbils by instinct are wary of sudden overhead movements and in wild as soon as they sense one, they flee into their burrows.

This is also why you should never make a sudden overhead movement even if it is to pick up your beloved pet for play time

Gerbils have excellent hearing and in wild can hear very low frequency sounds that humans cannot. This helps them detect sounds as low as flapping of a bird’s wings hence saving them from predators.

These mammals have small scent glands on their bellies. This gland looks like a white slit and is present in both males and females. It produces a musty smelling secretion. Gerbils use this scent to recognize each other as well as to mark their territory by rubbing their bellies against things.

Most gerbils have dense and shiny coats of fur. For most varieties, tail is also covered in fur. They also take good care of their fur, cleaning with their claws and clan members grooming each other.

Gerbils have ever growing teeth and claws and they need to wear them down regularly. In wild they gnaw and burrow continuously to do this. As pets, wooden toys, sandpapers, nail clippers (for small pets) are all good solutions.

In wild, gerbils are have what is now called a golden agouti or agouti color. Their belly is white while fur on their back is a mix of golden brown (or orange) and black. The undercoat is mostly grey. 

A cute golden agouti gerbil playing with toys

This color helps them blend in with their natural desert surroundings (gerbils are prey animals).

Pet gerbils, however, now come in over 40 colors. This is primarily because of selective breeding over the years.

All these 40 different colors actually belong to the exact same species (i.e Mongolian gerbil) and have very similar temperament and habits.

The most popular pet gerbil color is golden agouti, though other varieties like nutmeg, blue, burmese, red fox, sapphire, argente, ruby eyed white and lilac etc are catching up too.

Lifespan

In wild, gerbils live for about 2 years. However as pets with proper care, they can live much longer.

If they are kept in clean and stress free environment and are fed and taken care of regularly, they can live up to 3-5 years, with average being close to 3.5 years.

This is significantly longer than a hamster or a pet mice though may not be as long as a cat or a dog.

Pet gerbils will mean a significant commitment for a pet owner, so please do think about responsibility that you are about to undertake before you get them. Remeber there have been reports of gerbils living as long as 6 years.

Legality

In the USA, gerbils are banned in both the state of California as well as Hawaii.

So if you are resident of these two states, you can not legally own Gerbils as pets.

The primary reasoning behind this ban is that the environment in these states is very similar to natural habitat of gerbils. If any gerbils somehow get loose in wild, they can breed quickly and can cause significant ecological damage.

California allows golden domestic hamsters, domesticated mice and domesticated guinea pigs as pets. Hawai allows guinea pigs, chinchillas and rabbits so choose one of those instead.

Internationally gerbils are banned in New Zealand as well as in Australia. If you live in these countries, look for suitable alternatives.

Few things to remember

Gerbils can breed very quickly. In captivity, they mate throughout the year and a pair can give birth to 3-7 gerbils at a time. So make sure that when you are getting two gerbils, they are of the same sex.

Gerbils are territorial animals and identify other members of their clan by scent. While they are incredibly nice to their own clan members, they will attack and fight a stranger gerbil. If you do get gerbils from different groups, properly introduce them first with the split-cage method.

Gerbils are adaptive and can take a lot of handling. However pet owners still need to be careful while picking them up. Never make a sudden overhead movement as outlined earlier or pick them up by their tails as their tail can break off very easily. This will injure and stress your pet.

Finally, gerbils are social animals and can only live in groups. One single gerbil is not ok. A single gerbil will become stressed and irritable so please always get them in groups (at least two).

Things to take care of:​

  • Don't get a male and female gerbil unless you want a lot of babies
  • Don't add two gerbils from different groups in same area without first split caging them
  • Don't ever hold your gerbil by its tail or make a sudden overhead movement
  • Don't ever get one single gerbil. Gerbils needs gerbil company

Overall owning a gerbil can be a very rewarding experience. Had one or planning to have one? Tell us what you think or ask questions in comments below.

We intend for wagfu to be the most authoritative and completely accurate resource for pets. So if you see a mistake anywhere or want us to add something that we may have missed, please (pretty please) let us know

Vance Brown

Vance is a pet lover. He is obsessed with learning everything about his pets, including but not limited to tracking their ancestory. He has been doing this for 20 years.

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